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Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2002
"Once Upon a Town" is a book that badly needed to be written. My parents who both served in World War II, years ago,told me the story about the North Platte Canteen. This canteen, organized in a little town in Nebraska, made a point of serving food and drink at no charge to every serviceman and servicewoman who passed through town on troop trains during World War II (1941-1945).
Soldiers and sailors all over the country spoke in awe about the wonderful food and treatment they got from the townspeople of North Platte, Nebraska. Many soldiers struck up penpal correspondence with townspeople they met. A number of women in the North Platte area ended up marrying soldiers when they returned from the war.
Bob Greene takes a "Studs Terkel approach" to this subject and much of the book consists of narratives of older people who were present at the time. One thing that really stands out is the unbelievable effort that the people in North Platte (and surrounding areas) made to run the canteen. Only a few thousand people lived in the area. Yet, millions of soldiers passed through the town. Nevertheless, very soldier was served food and drink. Many people contributed their ration coupons, personal savings, and a huge amount of unpaid labor to see that the canteen was always running. These people will forever remain in the hearts of the soldiers and sailors who received their warm hospitality
Greene also relates the changes that have come to North Platte since the war. Sadly, many have not been for the good. A town that used to see 32 passenger trains a day pass through it, now sees none at all. The railroad station and area where the canteen operated was torn down by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1973. All that remains is a small historical marker commemorating the canteen. It strikes me that North Platte has suffered the way many small towns in America have. Agriculture has declined. Industry and technology tends to base itself in large urban areas.
This is a "feel good" book. As I read this, I was reminded of the adage that when it comes to saving our world all of us must "think globally and act locally". This is precisely what the people of North Platte, Nebraska did during World War II. Any serviceman who passed through there will tell you that it made an enormous difference too.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Bob Greene, like his fellow Chicagoan, Studs Turkel, knows how to write about people. In "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen" Greene brings out the humanity of a small, almost forgotten town in the flats of Nebraska.
Across the world, America was fighting in a war, and in America, men were kissing girlfriends and hugging parents good-bye. Some didn't live to come back. In between the tragedy of war, and the sadness of leaving home was North Platte, a town which just happened to be where trains full of soldiers stopped briefly to reload supplies. In WWII the town was booming with commerce, as much as any small town might boom with anything.
Merely being a significant stop might be a story enough, but Greene goes deeper than the train stop, and into the core heart of the town. He discovers the great strides the community made to welcome the soldiers. The soldiers came from places just like North Platte, and most would've given anything to stay home. Duty called them to the war, and North Platte did everything they could to help them get there.
Whether is was the food and kind words, or just the friendship offered, the hospitality North Platte provided extended well beyond the expectations of the usual train stop.
Bob Greene describes the town with color and excitement, and brings us back 60 years. As now, with America again sending young men and women to the front of a complex, violent war, Greene's testimonial of the goodness of one community might spur us on to do likewise, in the context in which we live.
I fully recommend "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen" by Bob Greene.
Anthony Trendl
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2002
Got it yesterday, finished it TODAY! Quite possibly the best "feel good" book on the planet. Bob Greene masterfully shares the wonderful gift of the ladies at the North Platte Canteen during World War II with his readers. He takes you along with many of the ladies as they prepare for the troop trains passing through during World War II, with their heavily laden tables of homemade goods and cold milk and grateful appreciation, greeting every single train for 5 years. The emotional reactions of soldiers at the mention of the North Platte Canteen today is very moving, and the reader cannot escape the fact that the canteen workers gained as much from this experience as the 6 million soldiers passing through. They were, after all, doing it for their country. Bob Green captures well a patriotism based upon sacrifice, something that is viewed so differently today. Come to think of it, I don't think one of them used the word sacrifice in describing what they did. It will give you pause but it will also give you a tremendous sense of pride in what Bob Greene rightly calls "the best America there ever was." Kudos to the author for preserving such a wonderful part of our nation's history. Don't miss it!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2002
From "Be True to Your School" to "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Dreams" to this, his most recent ode to American, Bob Greene's topics never fail to appeal to me.
In "Once Upon a Town", Greene visits the now-bypassed town of North Platte, Nebraska to write about the North Plate Canteen, operated from 1941-45 by volunteers who staffed and stocked the train station to offer food and comfort to American soldiers passing through on the troop trains.
Greene writes of an amazing series of events, started by a letter to the local newspaper asking why the townspeople could not use the short stop of the troop trains in North Platte to cheer the soldiers up and show support for what they were doing. Within days, women from all over the state arrived with provisions to make sandwiches, and with cakes, cookies, magazines, playing cards, coffee, fruit and cigarettes. The first night the volunteers provided these things to the soldiers was Christmas night, 1941--I can only imagine how surprised these soldiers must have been to be greeted, in the middle of nowhere, by women with fruit, coffee, and sandwiches!
In a time of restriction, shortages, and rationing, this incredible volunteer effort continued every single day, from dawn until midnight, for four years. Most days, they gave out twenty bushel baskets of sandwiches a day....sometimes egg salad, sometimes pheasant!
Word was passed as a train approached North Platte and the GIs were ready to debark as soon as the train pulled in, looking forward to the hospitality of the citizenry. Soldiers would often play on a piano that was in the train station and those inside sang along.
The story of the coffee cups was interesting (there were no paper cups in those days)--the soldiers took the cups with them to the next station where they were collected and returned to North Platte on the next train back.
Greene uses the words of many of those who were involved with the canteen and those who were on the trains -- and shows us the roots of American generosity and patriotism, small kindnesses that, when multiplied, become a nation's pride. This heartwarming book is sure to delight.
In the same vein, I just read of a new book about the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who opened their hearts and homes to 6,000 people whose planes were grounded there on September 11. I look forward to reading that as well.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Briefly: A truly outstanding book that is unforgettable. Perhaps sentimental, but thrilling as well. Five stars; no doubt about it.
Many years ago, I was a young enlisted Marine riding a train on a miserable three-day journey home to take leave. Hot, tired, disheveled and thoroughly miserable, I was delighted to come across a USO counter in a railroad station where I had to change trains. The free lemonade, cookies and conversation, "where ya' goin', Marine?" refreshed me and lifted my morale. I was very grateful at the kindness of the volunteers at that USO counter.
Bob Greene has written a book about an astonishing project during WW II that took place along those lines. At North Platte, NE, the local communities established such a hospitality site for the huge troop trains passing through North Platte on their way from one coast to another. They met every train during WW II, day after day until the war ended, a continuing kindness of magnificent dedication.
The troops, many on their way overseas, were not allowed to disembark at North Platte and the trains paused for only a few minutes. The men were doubtless bored, lonely, homesick, tired and thoroughly miserable on their crowded and spartan four or five-day train rides. Their pleasure at seeing the townspeople coming aboard with food, beverages, conversation and affection is easy to imagine.
The subject of the book may seem to be a commonplace and unheroic, if patriotic, kindness. Yet for me, it is hard to even think of this book without getting teary. I was very affected, and am not an emotional person. Imagine all those trains stopping in the darkness and all of those lonely and frightened troops. Imagine the local citizens quietly leaving their homes at all hours to meet the trains, bringing their offering of comfort and kindness. The unselfish love of those Nebraska patriots gives me a lump in the throat and you may very well feel likewise if you read this book.
I notice that every reader review of this book gives it five stars, an incredible average, although well deserved. My compliments to Bob Greene. He has written a real winner, a unique tribute to human kindness, a subject few books can address these days. I concur with that five-star rating, and predict that you will, too.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2002
For someone who was born after World War II, Bob Greene, in this book, has a wonderful grasp of and appreciation for what life was like on the Home Front during the War. For those of us who lived through the War, he tells a little-known story about a special place in the heartland, and we are the richer for hearing it. He has visited the places, and talked with many of the people involved...More than that, he makes certain that his readers can see them as well. I have read all of Bob Greene's books, on subjects as diverse as Michael Jordan, his baby girl's first year, and a summer-long 25th reunion of three high school friends. If you know him through his columns in the Chicago Tribune, or his books, you know he is a unique person and writes perfect nearly-poetic prose. I was not disappointed in this book, and don't think you will be either.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
It all happened because of a mistake. It was 1941, ten days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the people of North Platte, a small town in Nebraska, had heard that a train carrying Nebraska National Guard's Company D would be passing through, carrying soldiers to the West Coast and to war. It would be their very own sweethearts, sons, and buddies, and the town showed up at the station with food to give to the boys. But it turned out that this was the Company D of _Kansas's_ National Guard. The citizens of North Platte may have been chagrinned about their mistake, but they made sure those Kansas boys were sent away as well appreciated as their own sons would have been. After all, they were going to war for them as surely as if they had been home town boys. The idea struck some of them that sending the soldiers off this way was just the sort of appreciation the little town ought to be showing. And so the North Platte Canteen was born, serving soldiers crossing the nation during ten minute refueling stops in a little town of people they didn't know. Serving millions of soldiers and sailors, train by train, day by day, until after the war ended.
Bob Greene says he was on a hunt for the "best America there ever was," and if there are other nominations in the category, I bet he has them beat. His _Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen_ (Morrow) is the story of his visit to North Platte, research into the history of the Canteen, and interviews with the now quite elderly people who took part, both as donors and recipients of the town's hospitality. Twelve thousand people lived in the little town, and six million soldiers got a sincere greeting on their way through. The members of the town paid for it all themselves, used their rationing coupons, made do somehow, and made sure that the tables set up in a room of the station house were full of fried chicken, cakes, pheasant sandwiches, hot coffee, and chewing gum. They made an unforgettable impression on the young soldiers and sailors, many of whom did not even know, for security's sake, where they were eventually headed and many who would never get American hospitality ever again. One remembered, "Those people spent all that time and donated all that money - to get the sugar and all that stuff. They gave up their own ration stamps. They were using their ration stamps for us. We all knew what that meant. I wrote home about it."
And their mothers wrote to the town, having read their sons' stories of how well they had been treated at North Platte. "Heaven bless you for what you did for my boy and every other mother's boy." The town still gets letters of thanks from the servicemen who came through, but Greene's fine book must be the best thank you written. He has told about the current North Platte, too, and of course it isn't anything like the one of sixty years ago, though his visit to an abortive Bikini Contest is hilarious. His last book, _Duty_, was about patriotism writ large in the crew of the Enola Gay, and this one is about the smaller, home-grown version. It is sweet, and if he gets schmaltzy now and then, that's the right tone exactly, and thank goodness he got some of these old folks to tell this story before it was too late. There are other fine stories of Americans doing the right thing, stories that are current; but the North Platte Canteen was inspiring, and sentimentally fulfilling, and unique, and gone forever.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2003
Bob Greene is a gifted writer who wrote a great book about a remarkable town that did extraordinary things in some of the most trying times in our nation's history. The miracle of the North Platte Canteen is a story about little-known wartime heroics, filled with many first-hand personal accounts and recollections from some of our diminishing remaining national treasures-our WWII veterans. This book should be read by all, especially those not old enough to have experienced WWII America.

This book describes and explains Greene's love affair with the North Platte, Nebraska railroad canteen and the people whose lives were positively influenced by what happened there between Christmas Day, 1941 and April 1, 1946. The residents of that small town, and neighboring towns, took it upon themselves to provide food, love, and support to the millions of servicemen riding in the endless, cramped WWII troop transport trains that stopped briefly in North Platte.

Greene captured the volunteer canteen workers' incredible spirit of selfless sacrifice, and the everlasting gratitude of the mostly drafted young men who briefly stopped at North Platte on their way to war. Although most stops lasted maybe ten minutes, their memories of their canteen experiences have lasted all their lives.

As Greene noted, "He started to cry softly in mid-sentence. I would have attributed it to the stress of being about to go into surgery, except that it was happening regularly when I spoke with the men who had come through North Platte on the trains. The volunteers from the canteen, while emotional, usually remained composed. But the soldiers they had welcomed...as often as not, they would weep at some point during our conversations as they recalled the experience." The memory of any place that brings tears to the eyes of men who have seen and experienced combat is a very special memory of a very special place.

The story of the North Platte Canteen is a story of a long ago and largely forgotten America when times were slower and people seemed more morally balanced and values-centered. However, according to a January 31, 2003 "Washington Times" article, the staff at a North Platte motel revived the canteen tradition by providing a friendly dinner "with a bit of hospitality for dessert" for over 500 North Dakota National Guard troops who stopped there after a long day on the road on their way to the Persian Gulf in preparation for war with Iraq.
Read this book and learn all about this very special tradition.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
From Christmas Day 1941 until the end of WWII, the people of North Platte, Nebraska, met every troop train that stopped at their railroad terminal, providing coffee, candy, apples, sandwiches, birthday cakes and other treats. Green's book is replete with testimonials attesting to how much this meant to our boys in uniform. One of the most touching anecdotes was about a sixteen-year-old from Chicago who had enlisted and been sent to San Francisco. The military authorities there found him out; he admitted he wasn't old enough and was given his discharge. He hitchhiked back across country, stopping to rest at North Platte. The ladies arranged a ride to Omaha with the promise of another to Chicago. The ladies also collected seven dollars to tide him over until he got home.
Green tracked down some of the ladies and young girls who worked at what became the North Platte Canteen. One of them had a sister whose name had been put in a popcorn ball as a possible pen pal for one of the soldiers. He wrote to her, asking if she had a sister who'd be willing to write to his buddy. The sister ultimately married the soldier's friend, although she never actually worked at the Canteen.
Between testimonials, Green walks through the town, visiting the place where the Canteen (which was torn down by the Union Pacific in the middle of the night) used to stand. The trains no longer stop in North Platte. Downtown is pretty much deserted. He wonders where all of the people are. He can't find them at the local mall. One day he stops at the local Wal-mart and there they are. He thinks they congregate there because they feel at home at Wal-mart's. Because most Wal-marts are the same, they know what to expect. Green pretty much scorns so-called progress: he's down on freeways, airplanes, and television. The freeways bypass towns like North Platte; the planes fly over them, and television keeps people at home, unlike those in 1940's North Platte who came to town on Saturday night just to people watch.
This book had some special meaning for me. As an ex serviceman, I remember how welcoming the ladies at the USO in Chicago were during a weekend pass from Navy boot camp. They didn't fire any live ammo at us there, but the Navy company commanders were brutal just the same. The USO was an oasis of humanity, just like North Platte, Nebraska.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2002
I lived in Holbrook, Nebraska from 1963 - 1973 and had never heard of the Canteen in North Platte. Also being a WW II buff, this book ingtrigued me. Reading through it I could visualize all of the small towns and areas that were mentioned where hard-working farm folks pitched in to keep the Canteen stocked with food and goodwill. My memories of the Nebraska folks are full of warm, welcoming, caring, neighborly people who would do most anything they could for you. This book surely shows the spirit of the people of Nebraska, which I am certain still prevails today. I did read the name of "Holbrook" in one of the book's chapters, and now I wonder about the "old folks" I knew back in the days I lived there -- did they participate in helping keep the Canteen going? I imagine they did, knowing how they would want to help in times of need.
I've heard a lot of people complain about traveling through Nebraska because it's a boring ride -- they think there is no scenery to speak of. But within those wide open spaces and rolling hills and canyons there are folks with hearts of gold, and Bob Greene helped us see some of that. Good for him! We need to know the good that is in the world.
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